Arguing for the Greater Good – Arguing Constructively

No matter how great your boyfriend is, sooner or later there will come a moment when he will have you on your last nerve. Hiding your frustration and pretending that nothing is wrong, is rarely the best thing to do. Letting off some steam can be a relief and bring hidden tensions out into the open, which may make it easier to get a handle on them and hopefully solve them. However, it is important to keep from saying things that will leave a permanent emotional scar on your relationship, and confrontations should definitely not become physically violent.

The first confrontation
There are couples who seem to have absolutely no problems and are always smiling when they are in public. Contrary to appearances, these are not always the healthiest and happiest of relationships. It’s possible that the relationship is near perfect, but there will always be some small conflicts at the very least. Nobody is a hundred percent happy a hundred percent of the time with the person they are so close to. Frictions can be so subtle that a bystander would not pick up on them, or they might only be expressed behind closed doors. If irritations are not being aired, even within the relationship, there is a likely a time bomb ticking away beneath the surface. Both parties may be suffering in silence, afraid to vent their frustrations.

It can take months for a couple to have their first real fight, but it can also come along after just a few days. The beginning of a relationship is confusing, after all. Both of you are presumably doing your best to get to know each other, but along the way you will occasionally fail to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Because his personality is still taking shape in your mind, you do not have a complete frame of reference yet, to interpret his words and deeds. Also, you may unexpectedly stumble across a difference in opinion so jarring that it causes friction.

Sometimes irritation builds slowly, ignored at first to avoid having a confrontation, until it can no longer be contained and bursts like a volcano. But it doesn’t have to be a gradual process; your partner may do or say something specific that hurts you so badly that you instantly head into battle. The most common is a combination of the two; something has been bothering you for a while and because of some specific event, the annoyance rises to the surface. As long as you know how to handle a heated discussion, this does not need to signal the end of your relationship. An argument can strengthen a relationship, as long as it is constructive and doesn’t do the bond between the partners any permanent harm.

“Fighting and loving each other aren’t a contrast, as you might think. Especially the people you love can push your buttons, because you care about what they do and think. Even during a fight, it’s important to keep in mind that you love that asshole in front of you.”
– Steven

For starters
When you sense thunder in the air, don’t stick your head in the sand. A ‘perfect’ moment for a disagreement will never come. Arguments are not convenient when someone has already been having a bad day, but they are also a bit confusing if the two of you were having a pleasant day up until that point. If you have any say in the matter, try to find a moment when you are alone together, without anything to distract you and without people listening along. Take the time to tackle the problem fully and to come to some sort of conclusion. Don’t go to bed angry and don’t bail on a discussion halfway through and then leave it for a long period of time. This gives the anger a chance to inflate itself unduly and makes it harder to stay reasonable. A mutually agreed time-out or walk around the block can be a good idea, however, if tempers have flared to the point that useful communication is impossible. When you have had time to collect your thoughts and calm down, you can resume the argument with less hostility or decide together that you will talk about things later. This may give both of you the time to really think things through, without feeling like you are walking around with an open wound.

Conflicts may slowly come to a boil if one of the partners refuses to talk about the problem or even refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem to talk about. In cases like that, the person who is in denial will have to be persuaded by giving concrete examples, drawing him into a discussion. Even a problem that only exists in the mind of one of you needs to be addressed.

Not everybody will show his anger in the same way. How someone handles emotions is partly decided by his personality but also by the culture within which he was raised. While one person may start to shout and gesture wildly, making it perfectly clear that he is steamed, another may grow very quiet and avoid contact. Neither of these approaches is necessarily conducive to a constructive discussion. Someone who is yelling has to calm down a bit first, because what you are saying will not get through to him otherwise. If you find yourself in an argument with someone who is yelling, make an effort to stay very calm to avoid escalation, even if you are pretty angry yourself. If you try to outdo him in volume, you will end up in a shouting match, neither of you listening to each other, and not get anywhere. If you bring down your volume, your partner is likely to follow you in that. Ask him to not scream at you, as you will not be able to have a discussion if he does. If he refuses, tell him that you want to have the talk later, because now is not going to work. Take some distance for a short while, giving him time to cool down a little by himself. If he interprets your leaving as a sign of a lack of respect, point out that yelling at someone isn’t respectful either. You could also ask him to take a stroll around the block, but that is likely to meet more resistance.

If someone is fuming in silence, you will first have to get him to admit that something is wrong and state what he is upset about. Very direct questions will be the most effective, and if his body language indicates that there is a problem, don’t give up straight away if he denies being upset. Body language and the tone in which you talk are always very important: what you say will often be less important than how you say it. An aggressive tone or patronizing attitude will bring out negativity in the person you are talking to.

Once a discussion is under way, first try to unearth the root of the problem. Hidden underneath the cause for the conflict at the moment there’s often a more general complaint. For instance, if he gets annoyed because he has to keep picking up the socks you leave lying around everywhere, one or more of the following may be the actual problem:

  • You’re messy and messiness irritates him.
  • You’re doing something even though you know it irritates him, so you seem to not care about his feelings.
  • You don’t show enough appreciation for the effort he puts into his chores.
  • You don’t help enough with the chores.
  • He’s in a bad mood because of something that has nothing to do with you, but needs a release for his anger.

To come to an understanding and achieve change, it’s important that you get to the real problem and that you don’t just analyze the symptoms. Keep digging until you think you have gotten to the real root of the conflict. This may not be an easy task; the person who is upset often won’t be conscious of the core reason for his irritation, especially while he’s still feeling it and unable to make a calm assessment of the situation.

To complicate things, the real problem may not lie within the relationship. Something that is actually a fairly minor annoyance that both parties could easily live with, can pop to the surface because someone had a bad day at work and needs to unload his frustration in one way or another. In that case, the real problem is that someone is dumping his anger on his partner, who is essentially blameless, and who could have been the one person to get him out of his bad mood. It’s important that someone who unloads his anger onto the person he loves realizes he is doing so. If it happens regularly, chances are he will ultimately end up sinking his relationship because of it.

You may also find yourself walking around with a feeling of frustration you can’t quite place. In these cases, it can help to have a talk with a good friend who knows your relationship well. He or she could help you figure out what is causing the unease and make suggestions as to how to solve the issue. Someone who is less emotionally involved will often have a clearer view of the situation. If you lack someone suitable to talk to, consider visiting a therapist. When you have a clear idea about what is bothering you and have figured out a way to tackle it, it will be easier to communicate it to your boyfriend and hopefully avoid a fight. But you can also visit a therapist together, if you have recurring issues that you have a hard time tracing back to a cause. The therapist can give a fresh perspective and objective advice.

How to argue
Avoid direct accusations. If your partner feels like he is being attacked, he is likely to emotionally distance himself from you and the conversation, making a useful discussion impossible. Generalizations should also be avoided; blowing an issue out of proportion makes you seem unreasonable. “You always say/do…” is counter-productive. It is annoying enough when someone accuses you of something, but even more so when the charges get exaggerated.

A tried and true psychological tactic is making ‘I’ statements. Instead of focusing on what the other person is doing wrong, you put the emphasis on the feelings you have because of the current situation. For example: “I don’t feel comfortable when the place is a mess.” Offer your own observations, needs, wishes and feelings and if possible connect those to your boyfriend’s behavior, without a direct judgement: “When you do this, it makes me feel like that.” Possible solutions can be proposed using ‘we’. “Shall we throw our clothes into the laundry-basket from now on?” Even though your boyfriend will realize that the proposal is really aimed at him, he will generally appreciate you saying it in a friendly, non-confrontational way. Be sure to not make the suggestions in a denigrating tone, like a parent talking to a child. This can make your partner feel belittled and cause friction.

Assuming that he can empathize with your feelings and understands the reasons behind them, even if he experiences the situation differently, he will gladly put in some effort to make you happy. If he doesn’t feel like he is being attacked, he is also more likely to see it as a decision he made himself, rather than something he was pressured into by his partner. By being considerate of each other’s feelings even during a fight, you show respect, which gets you better results.

Often there will not be one person who is clearly in the right and there may not even be a ‘right’ side at all. A lot of problems within relationships are rooted in a difference in personality or perception. You will have to negotiate to come to a new status quo that both of you can live with. Formulate clear plans together to solve the problem. If either of you doesn’t live up to his promises, it should be easy for the other to point it out. Be aware of each other’s limits. If someone has been messy his whole life, even if he does his best to change, odds are that he will fall back into his old patterns sooner or later. Change is not impossible, but is often tough and temporary. If the same stumbling block keeps popping back up during a relationship — be it wandering socks or infidelity — then the unhappy party will have to start drawing conclusions. Is the problem substantial enough that you are willing to lose your boyfriend, if nothing changes, or can you live with it, without feeling sad? At the end of every discussion make sure that you have made peace or at least have come to a truce. That will hopefully keep a molehill from growing into a mountain during long periods of uncomfortable silence.

Disagreements can ultimately bring you closer together, especially if these lead to new insights about you and your partner. You get to know each other in a different way, less cheery and romantic perhaps, but very human.

“There’s nothing I need from anyone except love and respect, and anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.”
– Harvey Fierstein, writer/actor

Verbal and physical aggression
Cursing each other out is pretty much always a bad idea. Nothing useful is being said and the words can’t be taken back. Words can settle into the mind of you or your partner and start to fester there. But there are differences between cultures about the significance of curse words. Within some cultures, they are used to exorcise demons, so to speak: relieving tension before a more practical confrontation has taken place. The person who was verbally dressed down will hopefully see it within the context of the fight and not take it to heart. But you can’t just assume that, and it can be hard to predict which specific curse words will slide off and which ones will escalate the fight. The goal should always be to fix a problem, not to hurt your partner, though that can be tempting when you are angry. If you have known each other for a while, you will likely know exactly how to deal your partner the maximum amount of pain. But you won’t gain anything from that. Hurting the one you love does not prove your point.

Physical violence is never acceptable; depression, drugs, booze or passion are no excuse. Every punch or push is one too many. Just like verbal assaults, a physical assault can scar and ultimately kill a relationship. Saying you are sorry may gain you some forgiveness the first time, if you are lucky, but if it happens a second time, you will have completely lost your believability. If you’re on the receiving end of aggression, leave straight away or seek professional help.

“I am not proud of it, but I did once slap my boyfriend in the face pretty hard. It took a lot of effort to fix that on an emotional level. When I realize I am bottling up aggression, I try to alleviate it through sport. And when I am in danger of losing it, I quickly retreat for a little while. My boyfriend accepts that I need a time-out now and then.”
– Max

Calling it quits
When do you need to accept that your relationship is doomed and that it’s better to give up on it? It’s not so much the frequency of the fights that should decide this, as the nature of them. If, despite your best intentions, there are frequent verbally abusive confrontations that are not solving the underlying problems, you should probably call it a day.

You can try to tackle recurring issues during a period when you are actually getting along well. You can then sit down together and make a calm and more objective analysis of when and why you seem to derail. If there is too much negativity and you have stopped showing your appreciation for each other, for instance, it’s an idea to take a minute or two each night to verbally express a couple of ways in which your partner made you happy that day. If you seem to be growing apart, you can also make a habit of each night discussing things that happened that day, keeping you updated on what your boyfriend is going through emotionally and practically.

Therapy can support a last-ditch attempt to stay together if you really don’t want to lose each other but can’t seem to make things work. An external advisor can teach you how to better communicate with each other. If you manage to formulate plans to solve your problems, but find yourself incapable of carrying through with them, you should take a moment to ponder if you can live with these apparently unavoidable frictions. Would you ultimately be happier with your boyfriend or without him? If a repeating irritation isn’t substantial enough to break you up, but the frustration about it doesn’t go away, you could occasionally still clear the air by going through the motions of having a not-too-severe fight about it. Even if you know that it won’t have a lasting effect.

In principle, physical violence is a reason to end a relationship on the spot. Depending on the severity of the attack and the circumstances, you may after careful consideration decide to give someone a second chance. One push doesn’t have to end a relationship that has been going for years. A slap is a different matter and definitely a big, red flag. Violence escalates all too easily. If someone gets away with it the first time, the threshold to do it again is lowered. It has to be made very clear that the one who instigated the violence is out on his ass the moment he does it again. Hold him to that, to avoid becoming a regular punching bag. When dealing with a physically abusive partner, you’re not asking too much if you demand that he goes into anger management therapy, where he will learn to express his anger in a less damaging way.

If you find yourself trapped in a relationship with a violent partner and fear for your safety, unable to stand up to him, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a local organization against domestic violence.

Last edit 04-11-2018 Dutch version here.